We got off the bus & all that was missing from the too quiet scene were a couple of tumbleweeds rolling across the dusty square. It was Saturday afternoon, siesta time, the new arrivals watched only by the trio of old men sat outside the kafenion. A guy appeared & we followed him to a sparse, clean room. It was what I expected, I’d visited Greece before, but I’m a sensitive man & I could see that Sue was less than impressed by our new circumstances. “We’re in the middle of nowhere” she said. Er…I thought that was what we wanted.
The winter of 1978/79 had not gone too well. Politically it was “the Winter of Discontent” (Google it), a minority Labour government was at loggerheads with its supporters in the trades unions. Indecisive leadership on both sides made it easy for the sensationalist media (rubbish in the streets, corpses unburied). Personally the coldest winter in almost 15 years was a bit of a trainwreck too. England was a bitch & when, in May 1979, Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister I had the time, the money & the inclination to get the hell away for a long, hot summer of peace, quiet & a gathering of my thoughts. (The morning after that fateful election night saw the introduction of muzak on Manchester’s buses ! It’s a fuzzy memory & a too bad to be true sign of the wrong road our country had taken).
All it took for those first impressions to change was the best meal since we arrived in Greece & a day on a golden crescent beach. The tourist season had yet to hit its stride & there was no airport on the island so little development. Sifnos had a ramshackle charm (rather like ourselves…Ha !) & evenings in Apollonia, the largest town, were cool & relaxed (rather like we hoped to be). We were away for 4 months, the plan was that there was no plan. Our decision to come here had been purely random & we were inclined to trust our luck. We liked this place & the next one may not be the right place.
Of course there had to be a small problem. Our budget would not stretch to long-term residence in our current circumstances. Intentions & logistics of sleeping on whatever beach we stumbled upon seemed less attractive than having a roof over us & a door to close. We hadn’t brought a tent, I don’t think we ever intended to sleep under the stars however romantic it had seemed back in England. In a burst of resolve (I have them less nowadays) I hit up the office of the Tourist Police & explained my problem to an English-speaking guy who appeared to be just hanging out. He gave me directions to a nearby village & handed me a note to be shown at the taverna there. The note was, of course, all Greek to me (sorry !), didn’t understand a word but let’s see where it led us yeah.
The bus rattled along a dusty, rutted, serpentine track (there’s an asphalt road now). Our first view of Kastro was impressive, a block of white on a domed hill. We presented ourselves & our introduction at the taverna. We were led through the kitchen out to a shady alleyway, we followed to the edge of the hilltop village, blue sea, blue sky, some view. There was a stable door, a two-piece unit, inside there were 2 beds, a single electric light bulb. A curtain across a raised section concealed a hole in the ground & a bucket ! That was it…what the…! The rent asked for this shed was less than £40 ($57) for a month. We were a little turned around by how unexpected this was & how rapidly it was happening. Ah man, handshakes & money were exchanged, a deal was done. Don’t be looking for a change then walking away because things are not like you’re used to.
Of course we loved our new lodgings, our door, our flat roof, our view. Our stuff was safe, we had a place to chill after the day’s explorations, before the night’s adventures. 350 years earlier, to protect themselves from raiding pirates, the locals left the sea shore & built their Kastro (castle). The exterior houses formed a defensive wall, access was by 5 passageways (once gated). Inside, a narrow shaded pavement was the only way to travel. There was a little dereliction but Kastro had not changed for centuries, there was probably no need to change. This place was a step back in time & we liked it, we liked it a lot.
We had spent our first night on Sifnos with a couple from Leeds who we met on the ferry from Piraeus. They showed out at Kastro & shared our enthusiasm for the village. The following morning they knocked on our door to tell us they were now staying just down the road from us. Good one, their apartment had running water & much more electricity than ours. When, at the end of the week, they hopped across to another island a postcard arrived at the poste restante advising us to stay where we were. I think that we had come to that decision all by ourselves.
Our new routine in our new situation was proving to be most agreeable. Up the winding road, Apollonia, that middle of nowhere, already seemed a little too crowded. We showered at a nearby well, took a leisurely breakfast at our landlord’s cafe before investigating the surrounding area. Down at the shoreline the beach was stony but at night the one family taverna there, where you ate what had been cooked, provided an irresistible blend of informality and natural peace. It was more than Kastro’s ancient architectural ambience, the people there were cool, interested in the new arrivals happy to be living in a hovel. I don’t remember any major discussion between Sue & I, I don’t think there were any. It seemed the right thing to call at the taverna & pay another 2 months rent. News travels fast in a small village. That night at Maria’s cafe she asked us why we wanted to stay for so long & we explained that we were a little in love with Kastro. “δεν είστε τουρίστες είστε φίλοι”, you are not tourists, you are friends. Oh my, I’m not sure how things had turned out so right but this must be the place.